For the Chippewa situated along the Great Lakes, the Minnesota lakes and rivers, and the Turtle Mountain lakes, fish were an abundant source of protein. Fishing was often done at night by canoeing the shallow waters and spearing fish. Torches, made of spruce pitch, lit the night waters for the fisherman and attracted the fish to the canoe. On summer nights the torches of the fishermen reflected upon the lakes and glowed for miles. Fish were trapped with basket traps, snares, wires, gill nets, and dip nets. Fishhooks were made of willow twigs. Strips of fish and meat along with berries were dried in the sun. The catch was then stored in six-foot deep pits lined with dried grass and timbers. Filled with fish and other meats, these pits or caches provided provisions for winter.
The making of Woodland bows and arrows required a lot of time, patience, skill, and craftsmanship. Arrow shafts were made out of different types of wood depending on what was being hunted. For example, arrows that were used for waterfowl were made of cedar because they would float. The stalks of June berry bushes were used mainly for making arrows. For the fetching of the arrow, feathers were utilized. Each warrior decorated his own arrows with individual makings so one could recognize another hunter’s arrow. Bows were made from branches of ash trees, usually four-feet long in length. The fiber used for the bowstring was made of the Stinging Nettle plant or from a material found in the neck of a snapping turtle. A perfected bow made of these materials was capable of driving an arrow completely through an animal as large as a moose.
While living in the Minnesota lakes and rivers, the most useful form of transportation for the Chippewa was the canoe. They were expert craftsmen at building canoes. Birch bark was used as the outside covering for canoes. The frame was usually made from small strips of cedar wood. The outside lining of birch bark was sewn together with the root of pine trees, and covered with pitch derived from pine or balsam trees. Most traveling was done on foot through the woods, and the canoe was balanced on the shoulders (portaged) from one lake to another.
Many articles of clothing were made from the soft tanned hides of deer. The women wore dresses, which were designed in two pieces. Women wore leggings that came to the knee. Jewelry was made from small pieces of leather and beads. Most dresses and other clothing articles were intricately decorated with floral designs or diamond shapes. Dyed porcupine quills were often used to decorate belts or jewelry. The women wore braids, and tied the ends with leather strips. Moccasins worn by women were similar to men’s, in that they were often decorated with quills or beadwork. During the 1800’s, contact and trade with the U.S. army was established, and women began using trade blankets and calico to make dresses.
Men wore tanned breech clothes, leggings, moccasins, and tanned robes. The men’s leggings were worn from the ankle to the hip with a belt type strap used to secure the leggings. Army blankets replaced the robe when trade with the United States government began. Men often wore braids and fastened the ends with leather ties. The women designed ornamented buckskins for their men with beading and quillwork. The tanning of hides was a task performed by the women.
While the tribe was basically stationary, homes varied with the season. The homes they built in the spring were made from birch bark and called wigwams. In the winter, the structural designs of the homes were dome-shaped. The exterior was insulated with snow. The floors of the wigwam were layered with woven mats of balsam branches and covered with furs.
The people lived together in extended family units. Each group would settle in an area where their needs were best supported by the environment around them. The land was not owned, but collectively shared by those within a tribal group. The forest was always a source of game for hunting and gathering of berries or plants.
Their daily lives were guided by the seasons. With each change of the climate, a different phase of economic activity occurred. In the spring, those who had spent the winter together would set up camp near maple forests. The springtime work included the activity of maple camp or sugar making. All those involved in the processing and continue to operate in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario enjoyed these camps. Other nearby wintering groups would meet up and cooperate in these festive springtime activities.
The Chippewa respected the cycle of seasons. In the fall, the tribe again split into extended family groups. Each group, consisting of about sixteen members, would hunt for a large quantity of food to be prepared for the winter’s rations. On these hunts, spiritual leaders went along with family groups to pray for the success of the hunt.
The winter months were spent in wigwams. Snowshoes were imperative for winter travel. But often, the blizzards, deep snow, and cold temperatures confined the families to their homes for weeks at a time. These long hours of winter darkness were spent telling stories, repairing clothes, making fish nets, preparing children for rituals, and long hours of warm peaceful rest.